Last season, the NHL averaged 5.86 goals per game, the highest number since 2008 (5.7).
I thought that made the timing of the John Tavares signing even more interesting – doubling down on offense, essentially, a year after the league saw a huge uptick in overall scoring.
Generally speaking, the league works in highs and lows. This handy graph put together by Peter Hassett demonstrates how scoring goes through peaks and valleys:
NHL goals per game since 2005 pic.twitter.com/7v6qyyUvgo
— Good Tweet Pete 🌮 (@peterhassett) October 8, 2018
And it makes sense. We know coaches can tighten things up defensively and love to put the clamps down on play instead of opening it up. On Sporting Charts, the numbers show that goals per game usually went down the season following a jump up.
To date, it really hasn’t mattered as the Leafs are averaging 4.8 goals on their own. The NHL is averaging nearly 6.5 per game as a combined total, which is the highest since the lockout. This plays to the Leafs advantage. Games that are free flowing like Leafs vs. Hawks or Leafs vs. Stars are almost always going to end up in the Leafs favour because other teams simply don’t have the firepower to go head to head in that style of play.
Individually, there were 24 players last season who produced at a point-per-game or better clip (minimum 50 games played). In the three seasons before that, there were 23 players total who were a point per game or better. To start this new season, the Leafs individual statistics look like a video game.
At some point, with what we know about the league, I’m expecting the scoring to dry up a bit. Until then, the Leafs have to be loving what’s happening around the league.
– The goals against are still high, but if you’re the Leafs looking for a positive defensively, they’re actually 9th in shots against per game, allowing only 30.2 per night. The numbers are always wonky at the start of a season, but that number would have placed fifth last season.
I don’t think they’ve done anything particularly well or made major adjustments on the defensive side of things, but they are trying to prioritize cycling more in the offensive zone. The top two lines can both sustain offensive-zone pressure, and the “new look” third line with Kadri — as opposed to Bozak and JVR from last year — is also more willing to cycle.
That said, a word of caution is that the Leafs are tied for second in blocked shots. Also somewhat surprising – they’re third in missed shots.
– In the only game the Leafs were down late trying to tie it up, they sat Hainsey and played Travis Dermott alongside Morgan Rielly against the Senators for roughly the last 10 minutes of the period. The 19:46 Dermott played that night is a season-high to date. His ice time has been very inconsistent so far, with a season-low 12:41 coming against the Red Wings after some questionable decisions with the puck.
To this point, Dermott has split time with Marincin and Ozhiganov and has had a little over 57% of his non-neutral zone faceoffs start in the offensive end while totaling one point and six shots on net through six games. They’re easing him in and he hasn’t fully gained their trust. He’s also not going to get power play time as long as Rielly and Gardiner are in the lineup; PP time could act as a confidence booster for him.
– Conversely, the Leafs had Ron Hainsey on in the final minute to protect the lead against Detroit, alongside Nikita Zaitsev. When Chicago scored with the goalie pulled, it was Hainsey and Zaitsev that were on, too, so that seems like their close-out pairing at the end of games. Dallas pulled their goalie with over three minutes left, so there was no real indication there of who the final pair would be, and the Leafs scored against Washington late to put the game out of reach.
– Not to completely take it away from Morgan Rielly, but I mentioned at the start of the season that it probably makes sense for him to play PP1 just to drive Gardiner’s price down alone. For example, on Matthews goal against Detroit on the PP, it’s an assist for passing it over and watching Matthews take a wrist shot standing still. He’s a decent fit for the group as a lefty who walks the line and slides it over to Marner — and especially at 5v5, where he joins the rush like he did to score against Detroit — but it’s a lot of easy points.
– The Leafs also haven’t been down much, but when they were against Ottawa, Babcock moved Nazem Kadri to play with Matthews and Marleau for a bit. That was when Ennis was on that line, so I’m not sure it would happen now given how that line is performing with Kapanen on the right wing.
Kadri is without question one of the team’s six best forwards, but because of who their top two centers are, he’s never going to move up unless it’s on the wing – and that may need to happen more when they are down and the games get tighter as the season progresses.
– Against Detroit, Kadri got an early penalty for going at Tyler Bertuzzi, which stemmed from preseason when they went at it behind the play. It ultimately didn’t cost the Leafs anything, but he has to be more disciplined than that.
– In the summer, I took some heat for projecting Tyler Ennis to start on the third line. With Nylander still not signed, he actually ended up starting the season on the top line instead. The main point here is something to always remember with Babcock – he favours veterans. He always has and he always will. He openly says tie goes to the vet all the time.
Just remember this next summer when the Leafs sign some veteran. Of course, it didn’t take Ennis long to play his way off a prime spot, similar to the opportunity he had last season in Minnesota. In five games, he had one point while starting the game with the hottest forward in the league. In two of the games he played under 10 minutes, and while he’s skilled when he has some time and space, he was often just pushed around and too weak to fend off defenders.
– I wasn’t surprised to see Igor Ozhiganov sit after the Ottawa game. He simply can’t play the Thomas Chabot goal like that at all, where he opened up his body inside the faceoff dots and invited that cut-in move. Good NHLers will go around that every time. You have to square up and play it properly. That will be his biggest issue – he’s big, but he’s clumsy in transition and his feet are heavy, so his gaps and positioning have to make up for that. At the same time, he’s adjusting to a new style of game and rink size. You can see the potential, but it’s going to take time for it to — if it ever does — come together.
– It’s early, but Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev are getting buried playing together, carrying only 43% of shot attempts while largely sharing ice time with the Leafs’ top two lines. Last season, the pairing controlled nearly 49%. The year before, it was 48% in limited minutes.
It has never been a good pairing and that is continuing through to this season. Zaitsev struggles to move the puck cleanly and Gardiner is nonchalant at the best of times with the puck. It’s not a good combination for puck movement, especially in a top-four role. Conversely, Rielly – Hainsey are humming along at over 59 CF% playing with the same top forwards and even more responsibility.
“We’re used to playing against Crosby and Malkin. Everything kind of drops from there, so it’s not that special… It’s a good team like a lot of others. They’ll probably be a playoff team, I think.”
– Capitals center Lars Eller on playing the Leafs
I actually think a lot of players on good teams will feel like this – the Leafs aren’t a tough team to play against. They are tough to stop offensively, particularly on the power play, but if I was a good team, I’d feel like we can manage that and take advantage of their defense. Washington lost, obviously, but I thought they were the better team for two periods before the Leafs played probably their most complete period of the season so far in the third.
“Every player who is here has NHL aspirations, irrespective of where they came from or how old they are. The job for someone like me is really to support — well, it’s really to support everyone — but in the context of the players, it is to give them the tools that they can use to get to the NHL as fast as possible.
There may be times along the way where those players aren’t getting to where they want to get to as quickly as they would like, and it’s my job to give them a bit of older advice, or maybe push them at some point. But to my experience so far, every player in this organization has been happy to be here but clearly has an eye on playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs at some point.”
– Marlies GM Laurence Gilman on retaining players who aren’t getting NHL opportunities
I thought this was a good answer. I’m curious to see how long players like Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen are going to hang around if they aren’t in the NHL. We’ve said it a million times, but the Marlies being in the same city and the “32nd NHL team” as far as their resources and facilities are such huge advantages.
“When I get together with some of my old mates from the Cup years in Detroit, we talk about winning and growing together… We all found a way to fit so we could keep adding to the group and that’s what we are asking some of our young leaders to do.”
– Brendan Shanahan on contract negotiations
This was possibly the strangest thing Brendan Shanahan has said since coming to Toronto. The comparison is illogical in the best of terms – there was no salary cap when he was with Detroit and the Wings regularly had the largest budget in the league. The type of pay cut the Leafs would be expecting these guys to take would each be in excess of $10 million, and while many will say they’re still rich, there are endorsements, and so on, $10 million is $10 million. This also did not have to be announced publicly – it has had no impact on getting a deal signed.
5 Things I Think I’d do
1. I think at some point you have to try Jake Gardiner – Travis Dermott and probably Martin Marincin – Nikita Zaitsev in a limited role with lots of penalty killing time. There’s more than enough evidence that the Gardiner – Zaitsev pairing struggles and I’m not sure why anyone would think it is going to change moving forward.
2. I think moving Par Lindholm to the wing was a good move and a nice way to learn the league playing alongside a really good center in Kadri. That said, I wouldn’t give up on the idea of him being a center. He’s a smart player who reads the game well, but he is getting used to the physicality of this style of game and a different kind of role, which is a tough one to drop into when you’re used to being a go-to scorer.
3. I think the Leafs have to feel okay with their current line combinations, all things considered. I was at the game against Ottawa and was not surprised to see Frederik Gauthier later put into the lineup – they are a small and weak team, and while Gauthier doesn’t change that, we know how Babcock loves some size and strength on the roster. Ennis also doesn’t bring much to the roster other than additional skill on a team full of it. Going into the season, I said they’d probably have to acquire a good depth forward and early on that need appears very clear (for the future, they can manage for now).
4. I do still think I’d eventually try 11 forwards and 7 defensemen, just to at least try it and see how it goes. Matthews, Tavares, and Kadri are all horses; they’re going to love the extra ice time, not tire out from it. The defense isn’t a great unit and there are some players you can reserve for specialist type of roles (like Marincin on the penalty kill). It could be awful, but I would like to see it.
5. I think an apology is in order. My goal is to have a Leafs Notebook up every Monday. The reason it did not happen last week is because I was overloaded with work – I work full time and am also halfway through a Masters program. It was the start of a new semester, and frankly, it was just too busy for me to write this column at an acceptable level. I also missed the game against Chicago (which I did watch after the fact), but I certainly didn’t want to write about the team having missed a game. I don’t want to make excuses and I’m the first one that expects a regular column, but I did want to explain what happened.